Art Is An Excess: Michel Würthle
In memory of Michel Würthle (1943–2023), we’re resurfacing the Paris Bar founder’s Autumn 2006 conversation with Roberto Ohrt and Harald Fricke on unoccupied spaces and Würthle’s unquenchable desire to make books.
Harald Fricke: Today, it is becoming increasingly difficult to separate the artist from the critic or the author of an exhibition from the curator. How would you define your respective roles?
Michel Würthle: I recently met Tim Nye, a gallery owner and collector who did one of the three Kippenberger exhibitions in New York last year, along with Luhring Augustine and Gagosian. He was responsible for the complex of subway stations, for which there was a very nice catalog. On that occasion, we got to know each other better, partly because I wrote a story for the catalog. Then we agreed that I would do an exhibition at his place. When I was thinking about what I could show, I came across a little book that Martin [Kippenberger] once gave me. It's titled Michel and His Friends. For me, the exhibition I’m putting together is supposed to be a kind of balance sheet, a certificate of time, under the title “Too Far for Binoculars.” It will include beloved people like Konrad Bayer, Oswald Wiener, Ingrid Wiener, Walter Pichler, also Martin Kippenberger, Damien Hirst. There are not so many, maybe twenty-two or twenty-three people. What’s exhibited can be documents, posters or drawings, photos, different media. And the whole thing is then also to include a book– for me, that’s the actual task, not the artifacts.
Roberto Ohrt: I got into it more from anti-art, from the perspective of the “abolition of art.”
MW: We have parallels there. Oswald Wiener, as one of my teachers, also absolutely followed this line. I'm talking about the early 60s...
RO: For me, it was the 70s, with the Situationists and punk. It was no coincidence that all of this was happening in Hamburg, in the neighborhood of the artists’ milieu, which was then, in a sense, just standing in the other corner of the pub. With the punks, you always lived with the contradiction – you played in a band, but you didn't want to appear as a star or a hero, but as their destruction.
When we defected from the anarchists to the situationists in the 70s, it was initially because they argued with images – with and against images – but above all they set their own standards.
MW: In my youth, the artistic milieu, with all of its lobbying for daily bread, seemed particularly gray and bleak to me. At that time, outsiders were considered good, almost enemies of the state – at least that's how they were treated in the press, if you talk about Otto Mühl or Günter Brus with regard to that time. They were outlaws, they were really hated in any case, and that impressed me extraordinarily.
RO: We became involved with the Situationists in 1974 or 75, as a countermovement to what was politically mainstream on the left at the time. We liked the Situationists because there was an artistic concept behind them, or, more precisely, a still possible surrealism and its poetry. What interested me about them was the double opposition movement: being against art and against non-art. This has become a matter of course: “Against art” is already – at least theoretically – part of the basic equipment for every artist, and other fronts had to be opened up against these simplifications.
MW: In Vienna in the 1960s, an artist was considered in certain circles to be a moron who was merely pursuing a career as a gadfly. Always with exceptions, of couse – as a painter, Arnulf Rainer and Maria Lassnig were allowed. In my day, the celebrities of the time were the representatives of Fantastic Realism – Michael Hutter, Rudolf Hausner, Ernst Fuchs – were all declared mortal enemies. Except for Markus Prachensky, who was a “ladies” man. Otherwise, I sympathized more with the writers ... and Walter Pichler, my Arbiter Elegantiarum.
RO: As far as categorization is concerned, I don’t feel like a scribe either, let alone a scribbler or whatever else is going around. These are just administrative terms; the artist is confronted with these structures in the same way. If you think about how many people in the arts supposedly occupy managerial roles and executive chairs without the slightest clue, where they act like impostors and endow their positions both ignorantly and authoritatively...
MW: ... but some of them do strike oil.
RO: Last year, together with Jason Rhoades, I designed a container and placed it at Art Basel Miami Beach, the “Transcontinental Nomad Oasis,” a model for the art market, that is, with a bar, gallery, and – of course – the secret backstage area where the deals were made, rumored to be fueled by cocaine or stripteases. People were upset about how we could do something like that, but that – just like the stuff of rumors – is part of the reality of the art business and, in that respect, also part of our show, part of the program of the Chowchillas, which was the name of our troupe. At the end of the day, it’s all about getting backstage and being there.
MW: In my youth, people were still very simple-minded in how they imagined the business, whether it was the Paris of a Modigliani or the Berlin of the 1920s. There, one imagined the artists’ scene as a conspiratorial community, even though most of them lived geographically far away from each other and met at most once every 14 days. In Vienna, it was different: As long as the oppressive pressure of the state weighed on the artists, they moved together in the coffee houses; when things loosened up, they drifted apart again. And I remember that in such a climate, for example, a drawing by Egon Schiele could still be had for two hundred fifty schillings.
RO: Whereby one did not have these two hundred fifty shillings then, either.
MW: Exactly. And I appreciated Schiele because he died rebelliously early. Klimt, on the other hand, had already passed me by.
RO: I've always been most interested in the people who – “politically” speaking – offer resistance, that is, who maintain their freedom of movement and throw up hooks against their determinism. In the 1990s, in the course of contextual art, painting per se was frowned upon and considered retrograde. That’s why I was happy to stand up for painting; that's where the more interesting struggles arose at the time.
MW: In this respect, you have to love an artist like Dieter Roth, because he has always fought battles, even with gallery owners. Someone could print the wrong gray once – and he was off the list, regardless of whether he was on the bill or not. On the other hand, Roth helped finance the Würthle+Wiener gallery in Charlottenburg in 1975 in a single week. The first exhibition featured collaborative drawings by Dominik Steiger, Attersee, Rainer, Roth, and Brus. Not a single piece was sold, at prices of 150 marks. But I get into a nostalgic rut: Sing, nightingale, sing!
RO: We even founded our own academy in Hamburg, but not in order to create a special place or a new institution. We simply compared our practice with what an academy offers, then decided that, yes, we ourselves could offer much more, and systematized this claim.
People don’t want to hear it, but art is an excess. And immoral.
MW: Here in Berlin, it was called “Austrian Government in Exile,” or thoughts or rarely heard music.
RO: Even when we defected from the anarchists to the situationists in the 70s, it was initially because they argued with images – with and against images – but above all they set their own standards.
MW: Above all, it was about the highest possible quality and not about the value-added tax.
RO: And about the message to take your life into your own hands. Phillips and Sotheby’s and all the other auction houses never change this message. On the contrary, you always have to go one step further: If you can’t make money in art, there's nothing wrong with that. But if you can make money, then you have to make even more money – to expand the field, to think ahead, to act beyond this problem ...
MW: ... and not to lag behind accusingly.
RO: Then you just buy cities and rebuild them.
MW: Oswald Wiener spoke of the need for baronies, entire counties.
RO: People don’t want to hear it, but art is an excess. And immoral.
MW: That is an aspect that I still do not dislike.
HF: Following such experiences, what is your relationship to the art business today?
RO: Ultimately, it's always about the invention or the question of where freedom of movement arises. That also applies to the “Transcontinental Nomad Oasis,” which went from Miami to Mexico City and then to Guadalajara. It was a construction that changed with each new station – and we actually wanted to drive the thing down in the end to South America, into the unknown. It's a project that materializes what you think and, as an object, moves your thinking forward.
MW: The path you took with the container is the classic escape route of the gringo – to go south of the border.
RO: Together with Jason, we also tried the spring before to test the limits of an exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. We wanted to provoke that the early closure of the exhibition, because there was constant talk of transgression in the theoretical accompanying text to “Dyonisiac.” We went for the classic stink bomb: Jason and Paul [McCarthy] had already made “Shit Plugs,” in which the shit accumulated at documenta XI was grafted into the form of dildos. These “Shit Plugs” had a further development, the “Sheep Plugs,” for which they used sheep fat, which smells absolutely awful, a sweet, rancid smell. We had two hundred of them shipped from Iceland, where they were produced, to Paris, and then we opened the boxes – so that the plan wouldn’t be discovered beforehand – during an action on the opening night. We came with twenty or thirty people in monkey costumes and staged the unpacking as a performance – and the Pompidou turned up the ventilation system.
MW: You didn't expect that?
RO: The ventilation had to run at full speed for three months.
MW: Wasn't there also some resistance at the Pompidou in 1993 with Kippenberger?
RO: It was more of a small exhibition spread over three rooms. No one at the museum had any idea that we would bring in his entire book production, and they reacted by doing things by the book, in other words: sabotage.
MW: At the time, it was his slimmest catalog ever.
RO: The catalog consisted only of a booklet, but Martin wanted to make a thick artist’s book. All we needed was a functioning copier – but the machine at the Pompidou gave up the ghost after only two hundred copies and was never brought back to life, and a new copier was not procured.
MW: For me, the desire to make artists’ books is unquenchable.
RO: That applies to every book. Because everything comes together in book production, from the layout and design to the texts and images. When people open the book, they see: There’s this other place, it's going somewhere else.
Perhaps as a Viennese, I also tend to never see things through, but instead just tell stories about them.
MW: I would take that even further and say: If you open it yourself, you can see where it's going.
RO: Yes, of course, because art is about imagining something and then wanting to see it concretely. That's why pictures are painted, and that also applies to the artist’s book.
MW: Or for the printed pages for which we are conducting this interview. There's a bon mot by Michael Krebber that art is gardening in small plots, plus nerdiness. But perhaps as a Viennese, I also tend to never see things through, but instead just tell stories about them. Although one always wants to be remembered as well. This is from Dieter Roth. If I had the opportunity to publish three or four books, I might end up publishing books by myself, under two or three pseudonyms. Mental arithmetic, weak; religion, very good.
RO: Writing itself also functions in this confrontation as communication; the text talks to you. It is a challenge to act according to self-imposed conditions. But you can’t generalize that. It’s about practice, about how one deals with situations and what one makes of them at a given moment.
MW: Am I deceiving myself, or has there been a renewed desire to disappear for some time now? Not entirely, but as a strategic goal. The book is the ideal tool for this. If you look at the huge spaces, where the guys are doing pretty well with their installations by now, the book again stands out very pleasantly from that.
RO: Yes, actually the container should also go further and further south and, at some point, get lost in the rainforest. After all, disappearing also means crossing over into an unoccupied space.
HF: Obviously, a lot depends on the scale. Sometimes the works are so powerful that, as so often with Rhoades or even Jonathan Meese, they push the institution against the wall and don’t allow it to interfere.
RO: That's when I met Jason, when he exhibited his “Perfect World” at the Deichtorhallen in Hamburg. It was fantastic, this huge building no longer existed, you couldn't see it anymore, it was like it had been pulverized. Suddenly the claim of architecture, that the container tells you what’s inside, was like wiped away, and with it, access to the production facilities. Marx already said that: the abolition of capitalism is not about the destruction of social wealth, but about the appropriation of the production facilities. For me, this is ultimately about economy, which is in every painting and also in the few strokes of a drawing. And what Jason did with “Perfect World” was also economy: He took the whole apparatus and made all the people within it active co-creators – from the sewing machine room to the polisher, plus the spherical music of ABBA. A huge production facility in one glorious moment - just as art is indeed a competitor to ordinary production facilities.
MW: It reminds me of an idea of Martin’s. At the time, he was very concerned about the financial success of fashion designer Helmut Lang. He thought it must be possible to launch a label within six months. He already had the name ready: Hans Kurz.
RO: I want to come back to the question of currently missing artists’ books. What the Situationists published were luxury products by today's standards – as if Taschen produced a three-hundred-page book every half year, fully illustrated in six colors, with the most modern cover, without a commission or any connection, not as a catalog or anything else. The publications were completely freely determined, their only client, the future. This was made possible by Asger Jorn, who earned enough. And there are hundreds of such people today, but none of those who earn enough money has managed to make such a project.
HF: How do you get the right people together for a project in the first place?
MW: Through desire and experience. It was clear to me early on that I didn’t want to have anything to do with just any artists. And I could also imagine that there were other “islands” with similar desires and interests.
RO: That’s why you want to go to the city; you're just looking for people.
MW: Unfortunately, I no longer have any cities that attract me in that siren-like way. But at the time, Berlin was one of them – great, slow, and ready to be built as the city was in the 70s. That already started with the fact that you couldn’t plan country parties for the weekend in Berlin, because there was no rural environment. Do you still have cities like that where you feel that attraction?
RO: Unfortunately, no. Paris has been killed. London is an unbelievably fascinating labyrinth, but even a museum director can’t pay for food there anymore. Manhattan? Exactly the same problem.
MW: Plus not being able to smoke.
RO: And Los Angeles is a non-city. Italy is too far away, isn’t it? Mexico City is interesting, I was there in the spring, it has an insane density.
MW: The pedestrian zone in Stuttgart, that's still a test of courage.
– This text first appeared in German in Spike #9 – Autumn 2006.
MICHEL WÜRTHLE (1943–2023) was an artist and the founder of the Berlin restaurant Paris Bar.
ROBERTO OHRT (*1954) is a critic and curator. He lives in Hamburg.
HARALD FRICKE (1963–2007) was a curator and art editor.